Advertisement

Sign up for our newsletter

Advertisement

Sportive bikes on test head to head: Giant vs Bianchi vs BMC

Peter Stuart
26 Jun 2017

The daddy of UK sportives is the Fred Whitton in the Lake District, so where better to put three sportive bikes through their paces?

Photography: Patrik Lundin

The Fred Whitton Challenge is an event every serious cyclist should do once in their lifetime – and then never attempt again.

It’s a sportive of exceptional difficulty, clocking up 3,900m of vertical gain over 180km, and taking in six daunting climbs in the Lake District with gradients well over 20%.

It was the first major event of its kind in Britain, and many would argue it remains the most challenging. 

With that in mind, the Lakes seems like the appropriate place for Cyclist to test three bikes designed specifically to meet the needs of sportive riders.

The inclines on climbs such as Honister Pass and Newlands Pass are so savage that every excess gram or hint of flex on a bike takes its toll on the ascent, while the descents are so steep and technical that precise handling is vital.

The cracked roads of Cumbria add another dimension to the challenge, as a sportive bike has to remain comfortable for up to eight hours in the saddle. If a bike can impress on these infamous roads, it can do the job anywhere.

So let’s do some introductions. We’ve brought three bikes along with us: the Bianchi Infinito CV, the BMC Roadmachine RM02 and the Giant Defy Advanced Pro 0.

All three are in the £3k-£4k segment, each born out of a desire to nail the market for fast yet comfortable endurance bikes.

Giant and BMC have sided for the modern trends in endurance – disc brakes and electronic shifting – while this Bianchi has stayed true to Italian tradition with a mechanical Campagnolo rim-brake groupset (a disc brake Infinito exists too).

Riding the Bianchi in today’s test is Thérèse, a competitive time-triallist and crit racer. On the BMC is Alistair, who kicked off his sportive habit with the Ride London 100 three years ago. I’m riding the Giant.

I’m also feeling a touch of trepidation at returning to the scene of the Fred Whitton, where a few years ago I discovered new depths of personal doubt and despair. 

Playing chauffeur to our photographer today is Billy Bland, a fell runner of legendary status in these parts. He holds the record for the Bob Graham Round, a 106km running race taking in 8,200m of vertical ascent, having completed it in 13h 53min.

He’s also done the Fred half a dozen times and knows the area like the back of his hand, which incidentally is broken from a recent bike fall, and has promised to nurse us over the local climbs.

In true sportive spirit, we set an open start time between 8am and 9am (which causes Billy to call us ‘a bunch of bloody soft southerners’), with a food stop along the way.

For today’s ride, though, it’s not the power in our legs that we’re interested in, but what the bikes have to offer.

Contenders ready!

There’s a certain amount of argument over what constitutes a sportive bike. For some, the main issue is comfort, and many sportive bikes offer a forgiving geometry and elements designed to reduce road vibration.

For others, a sportive is basically a race, and they want a bike that’s fast on the flat and light enough to tackle big climbs. For us, we’ll be looking for bikes that combine the best of these attributes. 

Comfort is our first stop. Bianchi has looked at its carbon layup as a means of achieving that, and woven in its ‘Countervail’ technology a viscoelastic material between layers of carbon that allegedly absorbs the jolts of the road while preserving the carbon’s rigid power transfer.

In our first kilometres from our guesthouse, The Lazy Fish in Embleton, Thérèse seems to be relishing the balance of comfort and speed provided by the Bianchi, riding happily through torn and scarred road surfaces.

We’re heading for the Whinlatter Pass to kick off today’s hilly horseplay, and we’re experiencing the usual British fare of cracked and uneven roads.

The Infinito CV does a fantastic job of absorbing the bumps with an almost therapeutic ‘thud’.

By contrast, the BMC Roadmachine and Giant Defy rely more on the overall shape and build to deliver the necessary comfort.

Giant has historically favoured the compact frame design, which means the seatpost is much longer, offering increased flex.

The frame’s wide tyre clearance further increases the potential for comfort, because a wider tyre can be run at lower pressure to absorb bumps. 

The Roadmachine is a wolf in sheep’s clothing and so it’s no surprise that it’s a little on the robust side. The geometry is a touch more aggressive and low slung than the others, with the head tube a full 40mm shorter than the Defy’s.

BMC hasn’t forgotten comfort, though. It too offers wide tyre clearance, and the stays at the rear end are also ‘stepped’ – bent and shaped to facilitate flex.

Crucially, though, it’s fast. Alistair claims it’s tough to ride the bike for a few minutes without wanting to stand up and swing it from side to side while making the sound of a jet taking off.

Mystic mountains 

This is no ordinary day in the Lakes. A clear blue sky sits above the snowy peaks of Helvellyn and Scaffell Pike.

William Wordsworth once wrote of the Lake District that it was ‘a sort of national property in which every man has a right and interest who has an eye to perceive and a heart to enjoy’.

The landscape is every bit as beautiful as it is challenging.

The most famous recent event of local cycling lore was the record-breaking ride of Robert Jebb and James Dobbin on the Fred Whitton in 2008.


Billy laughs at the very mention of it: ‘People always thought they were working together. Nothing of the sort! Neither one could drop the other, and take my word for it, they tried many times.’

They duelled for five hours and 40 minutes before reaching the finish together. 

It’s a wonder any rider could keep pace with another on these inclines, as simply getting up them is so difficult.

The Honister is the most testing climb on today’s route, as we’ll be skipping the steeper Hardknott Pass purely for geographic convenience (Billy once again calls us a bunch of ‘soft southerners’).

Kicking off proceedings is the more gentle Whinlatter Pass. 

From the outset the Defy is looking good on the climbs. It has a light and sprightly feel, and a wide-ranging rear cassette. For now it’s almost overkill, as I sit with the luxury of two spare sprockets.

A little further into the ride, though, I’ll need every gear I can get. 

The Infinito CV is certainly growing on Thérèse, too. It has a lower frame weight than the others so she enjoys some free speed, although the gearing is a little harder, which will make itself known on the steeper climbs to come. 

Over the top of Whinlatter, we enjoy a winding and exhilarating descent and it leads all too quickly to the first real spike of the day.

The Newlands Pass puts our bikes and bodies to the test. It’s a long ramp that leads to a savagely steep 25% wall near the top.

‘Honestly, what were they thinking when they paved that? Had Britain not discovered the hairpin at that point?’ Alistair says in a state of bewilderment when the final stretch comes into view. 

Given her slightly tougher gearing, Thérèse gets out of the saddle to muscle the bike up the incline. By contrast Alistair clicks into a 34/32 gear and sits spinning at a high cadence.

On these supremely steep ramps, weight starts to become a factor in a way that would be harder to detect on a steady 8% Alpine climb, and Alistair has begun to feel the weight of the Roadmachine’s 3T wheels on this climb.

‘I’m pretty sure these are heavier than my town bike’s wheels,’ Alistair tells me between deep inhalations.

At nearly 8.6kg, the BMC is a full 800g heavier than the Bianchi – a big penalty for the gains in aerodynamics and braking. The Defy, at a lower price point, also manages a lower frame and wheel weight to the Roadmachine.


The Infinito’s hitherto impermeable armour is also chinked as Thérèse lets out a cluster of expletives when pushing the Campag gear lever, as she struggles to engage the largest 29-tooth sprocket due to the Potenza’s long lever throw. It makes for a zigzag course up the incline. 

I’m having a breeze on the Giant. With a wide range of gears, a tall front to throw from side to side, excellent tubeless tyre traction and a low overall weight, I think the Defy could deliver me up here even on a bad day.

Last time I took this on I was riding a standard double chainset and thought I was going to pull my shoulder out of its socket such was the effort required. With this gearing (the same as on the Roadmachine) I’m able to take the climb slowly but comfortably.

Regrouping at the top, there’s some heavy panting and mutual assurance that it simply can’t get any steeper than that. The descent down Newlands is a real stunner.

Taking on the initial 20% ramp I couldn’t be happier to be riding on disc brakes that I know will stop me even if I get the line wrong.

The last time I descended this slope on a rainy day my knuckles were pure white and my forearms were seizing from the effort of slowing down into the corners.

Alistair isn’t a confident descender – being a surgeon by trade he’s probably seen a few too many snapped bones – but the Roadmachine is surefooted and he keeps within sight as Thérèse and I fight for position on the front.

Despite the lack of discs, Thérèse seems to be having no problems on the descent.

‘It just feels nimble but stable. But to be fair I’m just quite good at riding a bike downhill,’ she tells me with a smile as we level out in the valley floor. 

Moments later, Alistair shoots past, eager to regain some standing after losing ground on the descent. What the Roadmachine lacks in feathery weight, it makes up for in stiffness and aerodynamic efficiency, roaring with speed on the flats. 

A Honister test

The Honister Pass sits on the horizon. From this side, approaching from the west, we can see most of the way up the climb.

That’s a mixed blessing, as it intimidates but also lets us know what we’re about to endure. 

Billy laughs off our fears. Last year he climbed the Honister Pass more than 500 times, including 10 times in a single day.

A few years ago the Tour of Britain took on the Honister Pass, and Nairo Quintana and Dan Martin sprinted over it in billowing wind while pro riders at the back were having to step off and walk up the incline. 

We won’t be troubling Quintana’s time today. Thérèse settles into an easy rhythm, having finally clicked into the 29 sprocket. She points out that with a lighter set of wheels the Infinito CV could truly be a climber’s dream.

The Honister really is hard. After a spike of 25% it settles to 12% before another burst of insanely steep tarmac.

Each pedal stroke is like doing a one-leg squat, and it’s tricky to maintain balance while not losing traction.

By the time we reach the last few metres of the ascent it feels as though my lungs may explode. 

Working together, we make it to the top. A few mumbles of congratulations are exchanged as we take in the view down the valley towards the snow-capped peak of Helvellyn.

From here, we descend through Borrowdale, a time capsule of an English pastoral past, and Billy’s lifelong home. The road twists its way into a climb along the edge of Derwent Water, which is reflecting a perfect image of the mountains that sit across from us.

From there it’s not far to Whinlatter to make the final kilometres home. 

On the last uphill push, I manage to sneak ahead, having been a little more sheepish on today’s steepest inclines.

Alistair wastes no time blaming a few hundred extra grams on each wheel and a slightly soft front tyre as the reason he is dropping back.

Thérèse once again struggles to shift into the biggest sprocket, so is pushed into an uncomfortably low cadence, squandering a chance for a late surge near the summit.

Rolling back into The Lazy Fish in Embleton, we start hatching a plan to ride again in the morning and exploit this rare patch of good weather.

The issue of who should ride which bike comes up, and almost in union we all say, ‘I’m on the Giant.’ I think that says it all.

 

Giant Defy Advanced Pro 0

Peter’s summary

The advantages of disc brakes on this terrain are considerable, and the Defy still remains competitive in weight and ride quality, although it’s worth remembering that a well-specced rim brake bike at this price could be nearly a kilogram lighter.

The Defy juggles enough stiffness to reward climbing efforts while offering abundant comfort at the saddle, meaning that climbs are more pleasure than ordeal.

It’s a little jittery at the front, with vibrations noticable through the bars, but that never unsettled the bike, which was precise and manoeuvrable on the downhills.

One of the weak points of the previous iteration of the Defy was the quality of tyres, which were puncture-prone and sub-par in grip terms.

With this new generation of tubeless rim and tyre, the performance has jumped up considerably, and that pays big dividends when it comes to overall ride quality and speed.

Model: Giant Defy Advanced Pro 0
Groupset: Shimano Ultegra Di2 6870
Deviations: Shimano ST-RS785 hydraulic disc brakes, Shimano RT-99 140mm IceTech rotors, Shimano ST-R785 shifters
Gearing: Shimano Ultegra 50/34 chainset, Shimano Ultegra 11-32 cassette
Wheels: Giant SLR 1 Disc WheelSystem tubeless, 12mm thru-axle
Tyres: Giant Gavia SLR Tubeless 25mm
Finishing Kit: Giant Contact SL handlebar, Giant Contact SL stem, Giant D-Fuse SL Seatpost, Giant Contact SL Neutral saddle
Weight: 8.02kg (size 56cm)
Price: £3,875
Contact: giant-bicycles.com

 

Bianchi Infinito CV Potenza

Thérèse’s summary

The Bianchi Infinito CV is an immediate charmer. The iconic celeste colourway mixed with Campagnolo’s ornamental looks is a nice blend of traditional and modern.

When riding, the ability to absorb the imperfections of the road is striking from the outset. It handles well, too, bestowing enough confidence on the descents that I could easily keep pace with the boys and their disc brake bikes.

The downside is the general spec. I love Campagnolo, but the Potenza groupset was less slick and more effort than the other two using Di2. A stretch to a 32-tooth rear sprocket would also be a big bonus when the gradient really spikes up.

The wheels, too, are fine for training but not the sort of lightweight rims I’d hope for on a three grand bike.

I was left feeling that the Infinito CV has some very special attributes, but that it’s rather a lot to pay for a pleasant ride and an historic name.

Model: Bianchi Infinito CV Potenza
Groupset: Campagnolo Potenza black 11-speed
Deviations: None
Gearing: Campagnolo Potenza Power-Torque System 50/34 chainset, Campagnolo 11-29 cassette
Wheels: Fulcrum Racing 5 LG black clincher
Tyres: Vittoria Rubino Pro G+ Isotech graphene
Finishing Kit: Reparto Corse Alloy 7050 stem, Reparto Corse Compact Flat Top bars, Reparto Corse full carbon UD seatpost, Fizik Aliante saddle
Weight: 7.78kg (size 55cm)
Price: £3,349.99
Contact: cycleurope.com

 

BMC Roadmachine RM02

Alistair’s summary

I loved the loud yellow paintjob and sharp aerodynamic curves that make this bike stand out from the crowd.

It was seriously fast and responsive, while offering a healthy rumble from the road. At times it was a little stiff over rough terrain, although on the whole it was more comfortable than its aggressive lines suggest. 

The Roadmachine certainly felt weighty in comparison to the Infinito or Defy, and I would have given anything to shed a kilo on the last few hundred metres of the Honister.

Heading downwards, I felt comfortable on the technical descents but it was occasionally skittish over rough roads, even if the bike was predictable and sharp in all other senses.

In contrast, the Defy bestowed more confidence to whip around when I rode it the following morning (I won the rock-paper-scissors on that one).

Model: BMC Roadmachine RM02 Ultegra Di2
Groupset: Shimano Ultegra Di2 6870
Deviations: Shimano ST-RS785 hydraulic disc brakes, SM-RT81-SS 160/140 Rotors, Shimano ST-R785 shifters
Gearing: Shimano Ultegra 50/34 chainset, Shimano Ultegra 11-32 cassette
Wheels: 3T Discus C35 Pro alloy
Tyres: Continental Grand Sport Race SL 25mm
Finishing Kit: BMC RAB 02 handlebars, BMC RSM 02 stem, Roadmachine 01 ‘D’ Premium Carbon seatpost, Fizik Aliante Delta saddle
Weight: 8.56kg (size 56cm)
Price: £4,099
Contact: evanscycles.com

 

Kit picks

dhb Aeron Speed Short-Sleeve jersey, £55, wiggle.com

Peter says: ‘For a reasonably priced jersey, I found the Aeron Speed to be comfortable yet very tight and form-fitting in the right places to trim off those vital grams of drag.’

Fizik R1B Road shoe, £299.99, extrauk.co.uk

Thérèse says: ‘These took a bit of time to break in, but after a few rides they felt great and were remarkably efficient in delivering power. That they look fantastic is an added bonus.’ 

Mavic Cosmic Ultimate bibshorts, £175, mavic.com

Alistair says: ‘Apparently these bibs have something called an Ergo 3D Pro insert and “Reptile Skin Matrix”. No idea what they are, but I can’t fault the bibs for staying comfy and supportive all day.’

 

Thanks

Many thanks to Mark and Rachel Wilson, who own The Lazy Fish guesthouse in Embleton where we stayed, and who also introduced us to Billy Bland, who was a fantastic guide for the day.

The Lazy Fish is a luxury guesthouse, with a vast living room surrounding a wood-burning stove, three bedrooms, two enormous luxurious bathrooms and a jet-powered jacuzzi.

It’s an ideal spot for recovery after taking on the northern passes of the Lakes. Mark is a keen cyclist with an alarmingly fast Fred Whitton time to his name and is always keen to chat about bikes or help with mechanical issues.

Visit thelazyfish.co.uk for more details.

Read more about: